Sept. 18, 2013
By Steve Lewis
STORRS – Coming off a stellar 2013 campaign that resulted in a Big East Championship and an NCAA Regional appearance, UConn baseball players used the summer to get in as much practice as possible to make sure the 2014 season was even better.
Several Huskies took part in summer league baseball over the past few months, playing on various teams throughout the country. All of the players, being either members of last year’s UConn squad or incoming freshmen for the upcoming season, had the same goals in mind of gaining experience and staying in shape while playing against top talent in their age group.
Husky coach Jim Penders believes summer leagues provide good opportunities for his players to gain experience in a different environment throughout the summer. “This year we had a dearth of guys playing summer ball,” said Penders. “We hope some guys gained some confidence and improved their game on an individual basis.”
UConn sophomore third baseman Vinny Siena, who played an integral part in UConn’s postseason run last season, spent time on the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League, appearing in 31 games throughout the summer months. “The level of talent was really impressive. I gained a lot of experience and knowledge during my time on the team,” said Siena.
Siena, who hit over .300 last season, made improvements to his game while with the Braves. “I made adjustments to my swing. It was a great experience hitting against some of the best college pitchers in the country.”
Five Huskies were named top prospects in their respective leagues, including incoming freshmen pitchers Patrick Ruotolo and highly-touted Staten Island native Andrew Zapata. Ruotolo and Zapata, along with fellow freshman and infielder Ryan Sullivan, are proof that there is serious talent among the freshmen class this season.
“We’ve got some good, young talent, but it’s going to take them time to mold,” said Penders after UConn's Scout Day last week. “There will definitely be some guys that push the veterans. I think they are going to really compete for some starting positions in the field and also get some innings on the mound and we need them to.”
Ruotolo threw for the Seacoast Mavericks in the Futures League, pitching 24 innings in nine appearances, while striking out 34. He only allowed seven earned runs during the summer with the Mavericks. Zapata played for his hometown Staten Island Tide in the Atlantic League, posting a 1-0 record and a 3.24 ERA over 33 innings of work.
Sullivan arguably had the best summer out of any Husky while playing for the Nashua Silver Knights. He hit .283 over 26 games, which included two home runs and knocking in 21 RBI. The freshman infielder from Hopkinton, Mass. also scored 14 runs for Nashua, a team in the Futures League.
Sophomores Christian Colletti and Jack Sundberg round out the top prospect list, both of whom made made appearances in multiple leagues. Colletti, a left-handed pitcher from Rockville Centre, N.Y., played with Siena on the Bourne Braves. He made two starts, throwing nine innings with 11 strikeouts while not giving up any runs. Sundberg, an outfielder and resident of nearby Mansfield, played ten games for the Lakeshore Chinooks. The duo also spent a portion of their summer with Riverhead in the Hamptons Leauge. Sundberg hit .316 in 36 games there, while Colletti made seven appearances, compiling a 3.56 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 17.2 innings, three starts.
Sophomore first baseman Bobby Melley split time over the summer between the Plymouth Pilgrims of the New England Collegiate League and the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in the Cape Cod League. Melley played 10 games for Plymouth, hitting .244 while adding four RBI. He played only three games for the Harbor Hawks, adding another RBI to his summer total.
Three Huskies played on the Danbury Westerners in the New England Collegiate League, which include junior outfielders Jon Testani and Eric Yavarone, as well as sophomore hurler Max Slade. Testani and Yavarone stole eight and five bases respectively during their time with the Westerners. Testani had 12 RBI over his 35-game stretch, while Yavarone hit .242 over 24 games. Slade got in three innings of work for Danbury as well.
Beyond the talent, Penders believes the summer teams expose his players to unique environments they might not be used to. “The environments can be very unique. You can play in some leagues just in front of parents or you can go out to Madison, Wisconsin and play in front of 6,000 people every night,” said the UConn skipper.
Redshirt junior pitcher Jordan Tabakman played in exactly this setting, pitching for the Madison Mallards in the Northwoods League. If there were any nerves for Tabakman playing in front of big crowds, he sure didn’t show it. He started five games, earning an overall 1-0 record. He only gave up nine runs in 24 innings of work with a 3.24 ERA.
Sophomore catcher Max McDowell also played in the Northwoods League as a member of the La Crosse Loggers. McDowell played 14 games for the Loggers, which resulted in one home run, three RBI, and four runs scored.
Junior hurler Michael Healey participated in the Northwoods League as a member of the St. Cloud Rox. The first half of Healey's summer was working with the St. Cloud pitching coach to change some of his mechanics in order to reduce his ERA. In the second half of the season, he posted an impressive 1.92 ERA and looks to make an impact this upcoming season for the Huskies.
There is no doubt that the UConn players had valuable experiences while playing summer ball, but Siena thinks one advantage is the biggest. “You get to play every day and so you get more live at-bats which are always helpful. Just the grind of it, kind of gets you used to the life of a pro baseball player.”
Coach Penders wants to make sure that his players improve over the summer, but also that they represent their school in a professional fashion. “In a lot of those towns, they really rally around their teams, and so you want to be a good steward at all times. These guys did a very good job of that. We want to make sure we represent our program well no matter where we go.”
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